The NWT’s Department of Justice has no immediate plans to repurpose the territory’s correctional facilities or rehouse inmates despite low population numbers.

As part of its ongoing review of the government’s 2022-2023 capital expenditures, the Legislative Assembly reviewed the proposed capital expenses for corrections at Monday’s sitting. Minister of Justice R.J. Simpson provided an update on the populations of the NWT’s correctional facilities, all of which are at less than 50 per cent capacity. North Slave Correctional Centre, the largest facility, has a capacity of 143 inmates but currently only houses 55; the South Mackenzie Correctional Centre (SMCC), with a capacity of 36, has just six inmates; and there is only one person residing at the North Slave Young Offender Facility, out of a possible 25.

Simpson said these low numbers were in large part a deliberate effort by the ministry and the courts to reduce jail populations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He said the territory’s communities had not faced any repercussions because of the lower incarceration rates.

The Northwest Territories has three correctional facilities for adult men, plus one for women and one for youth.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson asked why a youth offender would be housed alone in a facility intended for 25. Simpson said it often isn’t feasible to move inmates to Whitehorse or Edmonton.

When pressed for more detail by Johnson, deputy minister of Justice Charlene Doolittle explained that doing so would mean moving youth even farther from their communities.

Although Johnson agreed that the low numbers are a good sign, “I guess at one point I think we have to re-evaluate running a bunch of facilities with low numbers, and even whether it’s beneficial to inmates to have four members in a 23-person facility; whether it’s better to have larger populations where there’s an economy of scale for delivering programs,” he said.

“We need to manage our lows as our highs,” Doolittle acknowledged. “It would be unfortunate to close something and then find out in the near future that we do need these facilities.”

Simpson said the territory needs the facilities that exist, even when the populations are low, since the female and youth populations can’t be combined with the general population. He also said the SMCC could not be combined with other facilities because of its unique therapeutic approach, which emphasizes addiction treatment and traditional teachings.

“I’m glad to hear we don’t really have any inmates in (our facilities) — that’s kind of what they’re shooting for,” said Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson.

However, he asked if the facilities could be repurposed for something else, such as job training.

The Justice minister responded that although there may be future opportunities to repurpose the buildings, there was nothing currently in the works.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon, these numbers,” he said. “When I took over the portfolio, the numbers weren’t this low.”

Doolittle said the low numbers are likely also due, in part, to increased social services in places like Yellowknife.

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